In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev readers are presented with three characters that of different time periods that each possess similar psychological traits. They each strive to attain self-awareness as they learn the lessons of life through Huck’s journey down the river, Emma’s experiences in the art of match-making, and Asher’s conflicts with his family’s Hasidism. Each novel uses the theme of psychological struggle for self-actualization of its youthful protagonists to explore growing up in the different periods.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is a young, immature boy at the beginning of the novel living by the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Huck observes his situation as one that is the design of others, not himself: “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time […]; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out […] and was free and satisfied.
But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back” (Twain, 1953, 11).
This statement evidences Huck’s undying love for the freedom and escape he finds in nature, and also his desire for Tom’s approval. Huck is forming his own personality, growing through his personal observations and realizations that civilization is not all that it appears or that he desires. During his trip down the river on the raft with Jim Huck observes, “Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” (118). It is this recognition of value that ultimately allows Huck to leave Tom and “civilization” behind, as he sets out for the west to pursue his own independence and maturity.
Twain utilizes several literary techniques in order to convey Huck’s maturation to the reader. Firstly, by telling the story from a first person perspective, we see Huck’s development as it occurs, from his own mouth. Rather than being told by an external narrator that Huck is growing up, we see it evidenced in his speech and perceptions. Also, the recurring theme of hypocrisy that occurs in Huck’s encounters with the civilized world and in the views on slavery that emerge from the text, a framework of repetition is established so that readers might see Huck’s growth, when comparing it to a constant. Finally, Twain utilizes the symbol of the Mississippi River—a thing that is in constant flux—to illustrate Huck’s own movement toward adulthood and self-awareness.
Like Huck, we see the theme of great personal maturation in the character of Emma, the Victorian English middle class girl. Austen introduces her as a girl used to having “rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Austen, 2000, 1). As a result, Emma spends the bulk of the novel meddling in other people’s lives and circumventing her love for Mr. Knightley. When Emma finally admits to herself her true feelings, it is the result of the lessons she has learned along the way and her own self-actualization.
Because of the near ruination of Harriet’s romance, her insults to Miss Bates, and Mr. Knightley’s gentle guidance throughout the novel, Austen writes, “Emma’s eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth” (268). Like Huck, Emma found out her true nature through personal observations, and was able to advance into maturity with her own independent wisdom.
With as much acuity as Twain, Jane Austen utilizes rhetorical techniques to convey the theme of self-actualization in Emma. By structuring the story around social class, Austen creates a framework through which Emma moves. Also, Austen utilizes word games throughout the text, such as Mr. Elton’s riddle meaning ‘courtship’. Emma’s solution to the puzzle poses a double entendre, as she correctly guesses the answer, but does not see its meaning, just as she does not see the implications of her feelings for Mr. Knightley. Finally, Austen uses Mr. Knightley as a static character, in order to emphasize Emma’s dynamic nature. In Mr. Knightley’s steadfast character we see a yardstick by which Emma’s maturity is measured.
Like in the previous two novels, in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, the theme of a youth struggling to achieve self-actualization is relayed. Readers are presented with the title character, a Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn, and an incredibly gifted artist. Through Asher’s struggle with this staunch religious sect, that views his paintings as a sacrilege, he learns ultimately to accept his art and himself.
“Away from my world,” Asher states when living in Paris, “alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, I began to find old and distant memories of my own, long buried by pain and time and slowly brought to the surface now” (Potok, 1972, 322). Because he has survived the hardships imposed upon him by his family’s strict fundamentalism, Asher is now able to emerge from his past as an individual, apart from the culture, community, and family that produced him. Like Huck and Emma, Asher achieves maturity and independence by the end of the novel.
Potok conveys this development of character through several literary techniques. Like Twain, he utilizes a first person point of view to demonstrate Asher’s movement from boyhood to maturity. Also, in the figure of Asher’s mythical ancestor we see a reflection of the protagonist’s development. As a child, the image of his ancestor invokes fear in Asher, but at the conclusion of the novel he acts as an embodiment of Asher’s own struggles with his heritage. Finally, Potok creates powerful images throughout the novel, using Asher as a mouthpiece. Through these beautiful descriptions we see Asher’s ability to comprehend and appreciate art, and, ultimately his growth as an artist.
In each of these three individual’s stories we see the theme of a youthful journey into mature self-actualization. In Huck’s trip up the river, Emma’s gallivanting through the social circles of Highbury, and Asher’s banishment from the Ladover community and excursion through Europe, there is a great and inspiring parallel: that of the human capability for change, growth, and enlightenment. Whether the young characters come of age in the rural Midwest, Victorian England, or Brooklyn, the result is similar and includes the greatest gift a person can give to his or her self: thoughtful independence.
Austen, J. (2000). Emma. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Potok, C. (1972). My Name is Asher Lev. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Twain, M. (1953). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London, England: Puffin Books.